"You are hardly comforting me, Mama."
Mama came up beside her. "She’ll be at work tomorrow. You’ll see. Why don’t you come home with me? We’ll have wine."
"I’ll take a rain check, Mama. I want to get a Christmas tree." She leaned against her mother. "In fact, I’m going to leave early, if that’s okay."
"Papa … would be happy to see his cottage decorated again."
Angie heard the crack in her mother’s voice and she understood. Mama was facing her first Christmas without Papa. She put her arm around her mother’s narrow waist, drew her close. "I’ll tell you what, Mama. On Wednesday, let’s make a day of it. We can go shopping and have lunch, then come home and decorate the tree. You can teach me how to make tortellini."
"Tortellini is too difficult for you. We begin slowly. With tapenade, maybe. You can use a blender, yes?"
Mama’s smile softened. "Thank you," she said.
They stood there a moment longer, holding each other as they stared out at the night. Finally, Angie said goodbye, grabbed her coat and left the restaurant.
The town square was a beehive of activity on this cold and cloudy night. Dozens of die-hard tourists milled about, oohing and aahing over the thousands of white lights strung throughout the town. At the end of the street a group of carolers in red and green velvet Victorian clothing sang "Silent Night." More tourists and a few locals huddled around them, listening. You could recognize the locals by their lack of shopping bags. A horse-drawn carriage rumbled down the brick-paved street, bells jangling. The first tree lighting ceremony of the year had obviously been a success; next Saturday’s would be even bigger. Tourists would arrive by the bus-load; the locals would grumble that their town had turned into Disneyland and they would stay away at all costs. The restaurant would be packed all week.
By the time she reached the Christmas Shoppe, it had begun to snow. She flipped her hood up and hurried across the street, ducking into the store.
It was a Christmas wonderland, with trees and ornaments and lights everywhere. Angie came to a stop. Directly in front of her was a thin, noble fir tree, spangled with silver and gold ornaments. Each one was stunningly unique. Angels and Santas and multicolored glass balls.
It reminded her of the collection Conlan had started for her, all those years ago, with a tiny ornament from Holland that read: Our First Christmas. Every year since, he’d given her a new one.
"Hey, Angie," said a lilting female voice.
Angie looked up, wiped her eyes, just as the shop’s owner, Tillie, came out from behind the cash register. She was dressed as Mrs. Claus in a red dress that had been old when Angie was a kid.
"I hear you’ve shaken it up at DeSaria’s," Tillie said. "Rumor is your mom is so proud, she’s about to bust."
Angie tried to smile. Life in West End had always been like this. No bit of business was ever too small to keep track of–especially if it was someone else’s. "She’s having fun with the new recipes, that’s for sure."
"Who would have thought? I’d best get over there. Maybe after the holidays. So. What can I help you find?"
Angie looked around. "I need a few ornaments."
Tillie nodded. "I heard about your divorce. I’m sorry."
"I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you come back in ten minutes? I’ll have a treeful for you. At cost."
"Oh, I couldn’t–"
"You’ll give me and Bill dinner in exchange."
Angie nodded. This was how her papa had done business in West End. "I’ll go get my tree and be back in a flash."
An hour later, Angie was on her way home with a tree strapped to the roof of her car, a box of ornaments in the backseat, and a stack of white tree lights on the passenger seat. It took her longer than usual; the roads were slick and icy. "Jingle Bell Rock" blared from the speakers, putting her in the mood.
She needed to be coaxed into the mood, to be honest. The thought of a Christmas tree chosen by her, put up by her, decorated by her, and enjoyed by her was a bit depressing.
She parked in front of the cottage and killed the engine. Then she stood beside the tree, staring at it while snow fell like kisses on her face.
The tree looked bigger than it had in the lot.
She got a pair of her father’s old work gloves from the garage and set about freeing the tree. By the time she was finished, she’d fallen twice, been smacked in the nose by an obviously vengeful branch, and scratched the car’s paint.
Tightening her hold on the trunk, she heaved the tree toward the house, one step at a time. She was almost to the door when a car drove up the driveway.
Headlights came at her; snow drifted lazily in the beams of light.
She dropped the tree and straightened. It was Mira. She’d come to help with the tree.
"Hey, you," Angie said, squinting into the too-bright light. "You’re blinding me."
The lights didn’t snap off. Instead, the driver’s door opened. Mick Jagger’s voice pulsed into the night. Someone stepped out.
"Mira?" Angie frowned, took a step backward. It struck her all at once how isolated she was out here….
Someone walked toward her, boots soundless in the fresh snow.
When she saw his face, she gasped. "Conlan."
He came closer, so much so that she could feel the warmth of his breath on her face. "Hey, Ange."
She had no idea what to say to him. Once, years ago now, conversations had flowed like water between them. In recent times that river had gone dry. She remembered Diane’s words.
Twice I came into his office and found him crying.
When you’d missed something like that as a wife, what could you say later?
"It’s good to see you–"
They spoke at exactly the same time, then laughed awkwardly and fell to silence again. She waited for him to speak but he didn’t. "I was just going to put up the tree."
"I can see that."
"Do you have a tree this year?"
At the look on his face, so sad, she wished she hadn’t asked. "I don’t suppose you want to help me carry it inside?"
"I think I’d rather watch you wrestle with it."
"You’re six foot two; I’m five foot six. Get the tree inside."
He laughed, then bent down and picked up the tree.
She raced ahead to open the door for him.
Together, they put the tree in the stand.
"A little to the left," she said, pushing the tree to a straighter position.
He grunted and went back under the tree again.
She battled a sudden bout of sadness. Memories came at her hard. As soon as the tree was upright and locked into place in the stand, she said, "I’ll get us some wine," and ran for the kitchen.
When she was out of the room, she let her breath out in a rush.
It hurt just looking at him.
She poured two glasses of red wine–his favorite– and went back into the living room. He stood by the fireplace, staring at her. In his black sweater and faded Levis, with his black hair that needed to be cut, he looked more like an aging rock star than an ace reporter.
"So," he said after she’d given him the wine and sat down on the sofa, "I could tell you I was out this way on a story and just stopped by."
"I could tell you I don’t care why you’re here."
They sat on opposite sides of the room, making cautious conversation, talking about nothing. Angie was finishing her third glass of wine by the time he got around to asking a question that mattered.
"Why did you come by the office?"
There were so many ways to answer that. The question was: How far out on the ledge did she want to go? She’d spent a lot of years telling Conlan half-truths. She’d started out protecting him from bad news, but deceit was an icy road that spun you around. She’d ended up protecting herself. The more her heart had been broken, the more she’d turned inward. Until one day, she’d realized that she was alone. "I missed you," she said at last.
"What does that mean?"
"Did you miss me?"
"I can’t believe you can ask me that."
She got up, moved toward him. "Did you?"
She knelt in front of him. Their faces were so close she could see herself in his blue eyes. She’d forgotten how that felt, to see herself in him. "It made me crazy," she said, echoing the words she’d said to him in the nursery all those months ago.
"And you’re sane now?"
She felt his breath on her lips; it brought back so many memories. "Sane’s such a grown-up word. But I’m definitely better. Mostly, I’ve accepted it."
"You scare me, Angie," he said quietly.
"You broke my heart."
She leaned the tiniest bit toward him. "Don’t be afraid," she whispered, reaching for him.
ANGIE HAD FORGOTTEN HOW IT FELT TO BE REALLY kissed. It made her feel young again; better than young, in fact, because there was none of the angst or fear or desperation that came with youth. There was just this feeling moving through her, electrifying her body, making her feel alive again. A tiny moan escaped her lips, disappeared.
Conlan pushed her back.
She blinked at him, feeling that edgy near-pain of desire. "Con?"
He felt it, too. She could see it in the darkness of his eyes, in the tightness around his mouth. For a moment there, he’d lost himself; now he was climbing to safer ground. "I loved you," he said.
If there had been a veil left over her memories, the past tense of that sentence would have ripped it free. In three words, he’d bared his soul and told her everything that mattered.
She grasped his arm. He flinched, tried to draw back. She wouldn’t let him. In his eyes, she saw uncertainty and fear. A hint of hope was there, too, and she seized on it.
"Talk to me," she said, knowing that he’d learned not to talk to her. In the months after Sophie’s death, she’d become so delicate that he’d learned to hold her in silence. Now he was afraid to care about her, afraid her fragility would return and, like a rising tide, drown them.
"What’s different now?"
"What do you mean?"
"Our love wasn’t enough for you."
"Suddenly, after eight years of obsession, you just changed, huh?"
"Suddenly?" She drew back. "In the last year I’ve lost my father, my daughter, and my husband. Do you really think I can go through all of that unchanged? But of all of them, Con, the one that rips me apart and keeps me awake in the middle of the night is you. Papa and Sophia … they were meant to go. You …" Her voice dropped. "You, I left behind. It took me a long time to realize that. I wasn’t there for you. Not the way you were there for me, and it’s hard to live with that. So, sudden change? I don’t think so."
"I knew how deeply you were hurting."
"And I let that be what mattered." She touched his face again, gently. "But you were hurting, too."
"Yes" was all he said.
They stared at each other in silence. Angie didn’t know what else to say.
"Make love to me," she said, surprising herself. The desperation in her voice was obvious. She didn’t care. The wine had made her bold.